As I sat in the taxi home from the office I thought about what I would watch whilst eating my dinner. There was the action thriller about a sushi delivery boy who secretly worked for the CIA. That sounded shit. There was the French existential drivel I had been given by a colleague I wanted to sleep with. I could probably just pretend I had watched that, she wouldn’t even know the difference. And there was the documentary about a heroin addicted Jazz musician who had choked to death on the reed of his own clarinet. The traffic was really bad and the taxi stunk of cigarette smoke, so I paid the driver and walked the rest of the way home.
Back in the flat I reheated last night’s left-over pasta and thumbed through the movies, finally deciding to watch my collection of tropical fish float round their tank, hoping I could finally catch which one it was that had been eating the others. I left my dish in the sink and took the whisky from the cupboard.
As the first drops of scotch roused the ulcer in my stomach, I turned on my computer and checked my emails for the millionth time that day. Inbox 1. I knew that this was probably a request to try penis enlargement pills (they don’t work by the way) or a forwarded email with a hilarious picture of a kitten doing something hilarious.
The message was a reply to a recent article of mine about the decline of a local artistic movement. The author of the email, a Mr Frederique Haley, was apparently very upset about a passing reference I had made as a metaphor regarding a famous bank robbery that had happened in the region some years ago.
He told me he his father had been killed as an innocent bystander in the following shoot out with police and that I was rather irresponsible for using the event to describe a showdown between local beat-box vocalists.
Now it might had been my ulcer talking, probably more likely the whisky, but I felt a deep sense of regret that I had offended Mr Haley. How it must of hurt him and brought back terrible memories to hear the night of his father’s death being compared to a group of young men in trousers several sizes too big imitate engine noises with their larynxes to impress a crowd of teenage girls. I wrote back immediately, apologising profusely for my carelessness.
The next day at work I read some critiques about the constipated French film I hadn’t watched and tried to impress my attractive colleague. She confessed to me that she had been given the film by some guy who wanted to sleep with her and hadn’t actually watched it, but thought that it would be something I would be ‘into’. She resumed her online conversation with a man who probably had a body that looked like it had just come out of an oven and I slipped away back to my desk.
My heart began to beat a little faster when I saw a reply from Frederique in my inbox. Perhaps he had not been sufficiently satisfied, offended even, by my apology. Maybe he intended to take the issue up with Editor. Christ I didn’t need that. I was on my last legs in this place as it was. I held my breath as I opened the mail and didn’t release it until I had read the reply through at least three times.
Apparently Frederique Haley hadn’t actually been offended by my article. Because, apparently, Frederique Haley didn’t exist. Rather than explain what sat before me I have decided to just reproduce it in full.
‘Look, I am sorry to have alarmed you yesterday.
I was not actually upset about the robbery thing.
I hadn’t even heard of it until I read your article.
I just wanted to write to you because I love your work, really.
I didn’t want you to think I am some kind of stupid groupie.
I am sure you have loads of those*
You are gonna think I am a total madwoman.
(*author’s note- I don’t)
I sat for a while trying to decide what I thought about this letter and whether or not I should write back. But fortunately my editor arrived at my desk and threw an article I had written, but he had not read, in my face and told me it was a piece of shit. I don’t think five minutes passed that whole day without me thinking about Sofia.
When got home I ignored the dishes and the tropical fish (despite noticing that yet another one had been devoured whole) and went straight to my computer. I had read her email so many times at work that I knew it by heart. I spent at least an hour editing my reply, meticulously analysing every line, deleting it, then writing it again.
I laboured to make my response sound casual, I didn’t want to spoil her fantasy that there were hoards of other women hanging on my every written word. Keeping the reply brief, I ended with a question to her, something I was sure would provoke further discussion between us.
Before I went to bed I turned my attention to the fish, a murderer among them, the others dumb to tell me who it was I should remove from the tank to save their scales. I had my suspicions about the blue and yellow one. He had this look in his eye.
Over the coming days and weeks I wrote to Sofia every night, and every morning I would arrive at my desk to find her reply. I tried to keep up my facade but it didn’t last long. She told me about her life, her formally abusive father, now infirm, whom she was caring for. I told her of mine, the daily grind of finding meaningful observation in things I considered to be useless and insignificant.
A change was happening to me with her every word, my colleagues finding less reward in sniggering behind my back, my editor feeling less power with every insult he threw at me. I didn’t give a fuck about them anymore. I had something else.
The day we finally met I had woken up to find only two remaining fish in the tank. The blue and yellow one was gone. I actually felt guilty for suspecting him. All that remained was the fluffy tailed one and the one with a deformed left fin. I had never suspected either, one for its beauty, the other for its disability. But soon enough I would know.
‘Let’s meet. Outside the market. Tonight. 8pm.’
I think I might have actually laughed out loud at first. But as the day nudged forward I began to worry. There was a part of me that had hoped this dialogue would never lead anywhere, because leading somewhere would mean new opportunities that I might fuck up. And then what? Back to the way things were? That could never happen. I couldn’t stomach it. I shouldn’t have to.
On the way home I worried what she might think of me. She had an idea what I looked like from my profile in the paper. I didn’t look much better or worse than that. And she had even heard my voice on the radio that time. But what of her?
I stopped in street outside the graveyard a few blocks from my house and realised something. I didn’t care. She could be fat, bald, made of wax or have whiskers growing from her elbows. But I was in love with her. Yes. I was in love with her and nothing else in the world mattered.
In the flat I looked for a particular tie, then a particular shirt, trying things on then throwing them down. The clock was edging ever nearer to 8 and I stuffed all the discarded outfits in the closet and walked to the door in the clothes I had been wearing all day. I had one last look around the flat, checking for details in case I might bring Sofia back with me tonight. I barely noticed that the fish tank was empty.
On the way I had worried that I would be late and started to run. I didn’t even have her phone number. What if she thought I was not coming?
At the crossroads I could see the market. There was nobody there. I checked the time and found I was five minutes early. I stopped for a minute to catch my breath, sweating all over. She can’t see me like this, I thought, I need to calm down. I leaned against the wall of a bar and tried to steady my breathing.
‘Hey.’ came a voice from the open window of the bar. ‘I was early. Come in.’
I indicated to the waiter that I was meeting someone. My shirt was covered in sweat but it was dark inside, the only light from tiny candles on tables. I had regained my confidence by the time I got to the corner of the room by the window. I looked around and there was only one set of eyes staring at me.
For the minutes it took the barman to bring my drink I tried to steal glimpses of her. Was she really this beautiful? She was staring at me the entire time, I couldn’t bring myself to focus.
After a couple of gins everything was starting to come together. She was everything I could have ever imagined. I could finally put a voice and a face to those letters. This was romance. This was what Hollywood dreamed about. My heart felt like it was going to beat a hole in my chest.
We were both quite tipsy by the time the bill came. Her face went cold and sour.
‘I don’t want to go back tonight. I don’t want to go back ever.’ I began to mumble how she could stay with me, how I would look after her. But Sofia was shaking her head. ‘Let’s go to Europe. Let’s go. Tonight.’
I thought about this for less than a second. I could leave this place and all the things I hate with this girl tonight. We could get the 5am boat to Cyprus. I have money, I have been saving. A new beginning with a new mind and a new way of thinking and a beautiful girl who loved me.
She paid the bill and we walked to my bank so I could draw out all the money we needed to get us there, stuffing it in my pockets like bits of newspaper.
On the way back to my flat she stopped outside the graveyard where I had realized I loved her.
‘You never did ask who Frederique Haley was.’
She led me through the gates, past gravestones and statues of angels. At an enclosed tomb that had been eaten away by storms she stopped and kneeled down, brushing away the dust from a plaque I could not read in the darkness.
‘He was a writer, his work kept me going though all these years.’ She looked at me nervously and then produced a camera from her bag. ‘Could I, take a picture of you here?’
I struck a few different poses as she was backing away trying to get the right frame. She kept moving, further and further, a sad look appearing on her face. I was about to suggest that the picture would look better from a different angle when she started to run. And then I felt the shadows moving in the darkness.
As the blood streamed down my face, and the two men took all that was in my pockets, I saw fish around my head. Swimming and swimming.
Beirut Beat 2011